Chinese-style Catholic church music facing survival

Rays of sunshine percolate through Jesus pictures in the church’s stained-glass windows, illuminating the yellowing pages of a vintage music notation book. At the front of the hall, an extraordinary band play liturgical music with an unusual twist — it’s all rendered with Chinese instruments.

Thousands of Chinese Catholics are expected to see such a spectacle this month, as regular performances of “Catholic folk music in China” are scheduled to mark the May Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Huzhuang Church in east China’s Shandong Province. The year-round concerts become more frequent at this special time of year, and bring this art form more into the public eye.

“I call it ‘Catholic folk music in China,'” says the band’s Gao Yongzhuang, explaining that the group’s repertoire is 14 church masses of 18th-century Europe. But without a violin or brass, they are played by five Chinese reed pipes, two bamboo flutes, three tubas and three cymbals. Although the timbre is familiarly Chinese, the melodies have more of a baroque European air.

“You can still feel the solemnity and holiness in the texture of rackety traditional Chinese folk music,” Gao says. “The scores are written in a Chinese way.”

These notations have been passed down through three generations. They have been recorded by “Gongche,” an old Chinese music scale using radical forms of Chinese characters.

Gao, however, is worried that the music form may die out if it is not popularized with a new generation. First learning the bamboo flute when he was 22, Gao is now the notation book protector. But he is 79, and 13 of his bandmates are in their sixties.

“Learning to read the abstruse Gongche is the basic requirement of each player,” the experienced musician explains. “They are much more difficult than ordinary music scores. You cannot learn it by yourself. It requires mouth-to-ear teaching.”

Gao recalls that churches in nearby villages once had their own bands, but they disappeared due to a lack of tutors. Huzhuang Church’s is the last Catholic folk music band.

He explains of efforts to teach successors his skills, “Young people have no time to study the scores. We have tried to translate it into staff notations, and played with string and brass instruments, but such efforts went sour. It just sounds out of tune.”

The tunes they play have titles like “Cheshangwu” and “Hesihe,” all of them estimably German transliterations in local dialects. “It’s seemingly an unlikely task to retrieve their original sources,” Gao adds.

According to Guo Hongsheng, the village head, a German priest designed Huzhuang Church in 1909. It was destroyed in the 1960s and rebuilt in 1998.

Now, the band players come to church every few days to offer a rendition for churchgoers. They often wear crimson Tang-style suits, a little bit incompatible with the Catholic Church. But the audience love the experience.

Huzhuang Church, at the foot of a hill named Virgin Mary in Shandong, is among China’s top three Catholic cathedrals. Together with the Lourdes Virgin Mary Church at the top of the hill, it attracts 100,000 pilgrims every year.


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